Sindya Bhanoo is the author of the story collection Seeking Fortune Elsewhere (Catapult). Her fiction has appeared in Granta, New England Review, Glimmer Train, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an O. Henry Award, the Disquiet Literary Prize, an Elizabeth George Foundation grant, and scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee writers conferences. A longtime newspaper reporter, Sindya has worked as a reporter for The New York Times and The Washington Post. She is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at UT Austin.
Sindya Bhanoo’s Seeking Fortune Elsewhere is a collection of short stories that is bent from the ache of a displaced home. The collection digs into the dark emotional underbelly of diaspora, exploring the resulting disconnect between heart and home while remaining faithful to the regional nuances of South Indian identity. Bhanoo’s brilliance is in her ability to transform stories of individuals from specific poignance to universal experience. The collection feels timeless.
When I first reached out to her over email, I was nervous. As a reader of South Indian heritage, it was the first time I had read a collection from a large American publisher that felt like it could be about my family members. Yet Bhanoo’s warmth came through immediately in our conversation, in which we talked about the importance of preserving immigrant stories, the complexities of the diaspora, clashing value systems, and the modernization of India.
Swati Sudarsan: Thank you so much for making space to have this conversation with me, Sindya. This collection means so much to me. I actually saw it in the Catapult catalog over a year ago and immediately was drawn to it. I haven’t seen a collection of stories dedicated to the South Indian diaspora experience, and upon reading it, felt like a space on my bookshelf had been waiting for just this collection. I am curious about your process of writing it. How did you get the idea for it? Did you also feel that this niche was unfilled?
Sindya Bhanoo: Thank you, Swati. I’m so touched to hear that. I always wanted to write fiction, but I did not try for a long time. It was motherhood that got me started. For years, I’d been a newspaper reporter. My work took me across the country and around the world, and it was a great privilege to step into the lives of so many interesting people. But having a baby made me realize that I had my own stories to tell, and that if I did not write them down no one else would. The stories in Seeking Fortune Elsewhere, about South Indian immigrants and their families back home, were missing from the larger archive. All too often stories about immigrants, about women, about those from marginalized communities, are absent from the record. Writing fiction is one way to go back and correct that.
SS: It’s so interesting you say that. As the child of an immigrant family, I often think about the stories lost through generations. I feel a profound sense of grief to think of inaccessible oral stories of elders and ancestors, lost because of distance, their passings, and even language barriers. I remember probing my grandmother many times to ask for stories, but she often asked me in return why I wanted to know her stories. It made me sad to think that she didn’t see her own life as astounding, worthy of preservation and remembering. I think that’s why “No. 16 Model House Road” was one of my favorite stories in the collection. The quiet resilience of Latha, and her unique way of honoring Binny. Did you feel any sense of reclamation for yourself or other women you know in writing this story?
SB: I feel that grief too. There is no way for me or you to recover those lost memories and stories. Fiction is an attempt at reclamation, yes. My stories are all made up, but there is an emotional truth, about moments in time and life in certain eras, that I was trying to understand, and put on the page.
SS: I love the way you constructed the stories. The perspective seems rather intentional – mostly third person limited, and mostly from the view of elders or very young people. What went into your decision to write from this view?
SB: That is an astute observation! I had not noticed it myself, but I suppose I’ve always been interested in the very young and the old. There is so much wisdom on either end, if we only pay attention. There is a certain kind of honesty a young person has when they talk about the world, and this was revelatory for me to pay attention to. As for the elderly, I can only assume that those who have lived a full life have a perspective that the rest of us don’t. What a range of joys and sorrows they have experienced. That is rich material for a writer. Perhaps some of these stories were my attempt to get access to what I once was, and what I one day will be.
It is not possible to know what it feels like to be another person, to know exactly what they are thinking, but fiction—both writing it and reading it—gets us close. It is the ultimate power of the form, I think, and the third-person limited view grants me an incredible level of intimacy with my characters.
SS: The dialogue throughout the stories was so authentic. I found myself laughing in “Three Trips” at this scene:
“She’s my sister,” I said. “That’s what you guys told me.”
“Who’s your sister?” Divya asked, alarmed.
“Padma is your cousin,” Mom said to Divya. “Sometimes we say ‘cousin sister.’” Then she turned to me. “Don’t call us ‘you guys.’ We are your parents.”
It strongly evokes conversations my own family has had. What a delight. Yet you are able to cover stories from many regions of South India with authenticity and grace. What was the research to write these stories like?
SB: Tiny kernels of truth and pieces of me can be found in every story, but that’s it. They are just kernels. A meal I ate, a flight I took, a couch I sat on, a conversation I overheard. I have, almost always, an image that gives me entry into the imagined world. Eventually though, the fiction transcends the truth, and sometimes the kernel I started with falls to the wayside. It’s a magical moment when that happens, when fiction overtakes fact and goes on to reveal its own powerful truths.
I did some “traditional” research for the book. I read articles and books about Jayalalitha for the story “Amma,” for instance. But most of the research I did was closer to what I do when I write a newspaper story. I stayed present, notebook in hand, in my fictional worlds, the same way I do when I go out on a reporting trip. I do this for a good, long while and bring back many fragments—images, dialogue, scenes that come to me—to my writing desk. Then I do my best to piece together a story. The moments like the one you describe—stern and tender moments between family members—are tricky to discover and trickier still to get on paper. A lot of it is experimentation, trying out different scenarios and dialogue until I find what feels true and authentic.
SS: That’s true, lived experience is the most important “research” we can do! Paying close attention. But at the same time, South India is not a monolith, and you traverse the region with dexterity. Maybe this question comes from my own insecurity about what I know of South India, even if my family is from there and raised me steeped deeply in the culture. I guess I am just curious how you fleshed out the regional differences and captured the nuance.
SB: I lived and worked in Bangalore for a year after I graduated from college. It was years ago but that experience was enormously helpful to me. Until then, my visits to India had been short and heavily supervised by family. The year I spent in Bangalore as an adult, I lived on my own and had to navigate the city and country as a working professional. I speak Tamil and it allowed me to connect with people from many different walks of life. I also love oral histories and reading and listening to them has inspired my work. I was a board member of the South Asian American Digital Archive, which is a treasure trove of detailed stories and images.
I have a longing for India that I don’t think can be fulfilled. It is a country that I know but that is not mine. That longing fuels me as I work, and it motivates me to try and get things right.
SS: Beyond regionality, this collection also was linked by the theme of loss and opportunity cost. This is not necessarily in an economic sense. The stories helped me expand my understanding of value systems, and how perhaps much of the dissonance between our family members/ancestors at home and those who leave their motherlands may be rooted in differing value systems. For those who leave, it is often the lure of financial mobility that takes them away. Many leave with the idea to send money back home. For others, it may be independence that they seek. You outline these choices brilliantly, and also show the intangible costs, which often amplify generations down the line as grandchildren raised abroad become unrecognizable to their grandparents. I wanted to ask each character: Was leaving home worth it in the end? In writing this collection, did you seek to answer this question?
SB: Yes. It is a question that haunts me and I will never know the answer. I will keep trying to understand it through my fiction. There are many immigrant stories and they are all important, different, textured and varied. But what does not change in the immigrant narrative is that family is left behind, usually forever. For the immigrant, and perhaps for the immigrant’s child, it is painful to do the accounting. The choice itself indicates where the worth was placed, but the truth is far more complicated.
SS: Yes, and left behind can mean many things. Even someone who goes “back home” often can feel the changes over the years. A few years ago when we were visiting my family’s hometown of Madurai, India, my mom said she no longer felt like a local. There is so much internal change that might cause people to leave as one person and come back as another. How did you think about these changes while writing these stories?
SB: It’s fascinating how astounded that generation is by the changes they see when they return to India, and also how shocked they are by the feeling of disconnect they sometimes experience. Several of my characters—the brother living in “America in Three Trips,” the mother in “Buddymoon,” the daughter in “Malliga Homes”—are grappling with who they have become and what India is and, in some cases, how India and the old world might judge them.
I’m interested, too, in how the roles of women have and have not changed. So many young Indian women are working professionals, employed by multinational companies. They bring home the same paychecks as their spouses but household duties are still not split down the middle. They still run the house and cook meals and take care of children, the way their mothers and grandmothers did. It’s such a complicated phenomenon.
SS: And we can’t ignore that the environmental changes as well. In “No. 16 Model House Road” and “Malliga Homes,” you explore the role of infrastructural development in India. Why was this an important theme to include in this collection?
SB: I am endlessly fascinated by the modernization of India, which I’ve witnessed over the course of my lifetime. I visited India for the first time in 1985 and I was very young. India was a different country then, its economy not yet open to foreign investment. That has all changed—there are multinational companies in every major city, along with McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Nike and all the rest. Some years ago, I noticed that many old family homes in Indian cities were being demolished, with multi-story flats being built in their place. I learned too, about the emergence of retirement communities for the elderly. I was less interested in the newsy aspects of these stories and more interested in the emotional aspects. What does it feel like to sell a family home after many years, as the main character in “No. 16 Model House Road” does? And what does it feel like to live in a place like Malliga Homes where the elderly have everything except what they really want—their children? That is a particular kind of loneliness and I was trying to parse it.
SS: You know, until you said that, I never really thought about how some aspects of modernization are not just due to the tech boom or globalization, but also because of the diaspora. Family structures are different now that children leave, and so elderly care homes are necessary. Maybe that’s why we can find both Dominos and Pizza Hut in my family’s hometown. I guess loneliness goes both ways. Those who emigrate seek the comforts of home, import their familiar foods and goods, open restaurants, and more. Beyond that, maybe there are values that we bring with us that are hard to integrate. This came up in “A Life in America,” which was one of the most striking stories in the collection. I can’t decide how to feel. What made you think of writing this story? What did you want to unpack?
SB: “A Life in America” is a story about a professor who abuses his power. In the story, I do not condone what he does, but I do try to understand how he rationalized his behavior. When things unravel he must reconcile with the fact that he wasn’t just blind to what was happening—he was choosing to be blind. It’s a story about a kind of harassment we don’t often learn about in the news because it takes place within a small community, under the guise of friendship and affection. I wanted to both tell the story and understand the man behind it.
SS: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me; it was really such a privilege to get to dig deep into the collection. I think I am going to hand it to my mom to read next!
SB: I hope she enjoys it! Thank you for your incredibly thoughtful questions.